The United States Student Association’s Legislative Conference is not a place where you expect people to get arrested. Each year several hundred students from across the country, many of them elected representatives of their campus student governments, gather in a DC hotel for a weekend of speeches and workshops on federal legislative issues. On Monday they head to the capital to make their case to members of Congress in one-on-one sit-downs.

This year was a little different.

The student government leaders were there as always. There were the lobby role-plays and the legislative fact sheets and the mediocre hotel food with the worse than mediocre vegetarian options. But at this, the first USSA national gathering of the Occupy Wall Street era, there was something else as well.

Workshops on campus organizing took up more of the conference schedule than they have in the recent past, and even panels on electoral work carried titles like “Occupy the Ballot.” A workshop on “radicalism in the student movement,” led by a new USSA staffer, drew a large and passionate crowd. In formal sessions and in the hallways, a newly activist mood was palpable.

That shift in mood reflects the shift that has taken place in the country and in American higher education in the last five months. Occupy didn’t begin with Occupy Wall Street, and in fact some of USSA’s most prominent campuses in recent years have been the UC schools where the current wave of campus occupations began in the fall of 2009. But the spirit of Occupy was more broadly felt this weekend than at USSA’s recent conferences.

USSA has always been ideologically diverse, and that hasn’t changed. The students at the conference included conservatives, moderates, liberals, and radicals. And in fact the shift that took place more a shift in focus than a change in ideology — a new interest in direct action, a new sense of possibility for student empowerment, a new sense of crisis and urgency.

The Monday of the long Legislative Conference weekend is always a lobby day, and this year as in years past hundreds of students took to the Capitol building to meet with their hometown legislators. But yesterday the trip to Capitol Hill included a detour — a visit to student loan giant Sallie Mae. USSA’s students were denied entry at the corporation’s headquarters, so they sat down in front of the building, some blocking the street. Ultimately three dozen activists were arrested, including USSA’s president and the heads of the student governments of several major universities.

For a street demonstration in the age of Occupy, this was relatively restrained — an act of polite civil disobedience rather than a defiant occupation. But it was a dramatic departure for USSA, and the participation of many of the organization’s most visible leaders indicates the extent to which it reflects an ongoing shift not only for the organization, but for American student activism more generally.

This bears watching.